Delis: Timeless Temples of "Jewish Soul Food"

One of the legendary sandwiches of New York's Carnegie Deli.
One of the legendary sandwiches of New York's Carnegie Deli.

Hanukkah is time for religious observance AND for celebration as well. And when it comes to a place for holiday feasting, Harry Smith of "The Early Show" knows just where to send you:

Tradition . . . it's the main ingredient in every dish at an authentic Jewish delicatessen.

From corned beef to chopped liver, matzo ball soup to grilled salami - rich and spicy, each dish a cavalcade of calories and cholesteraol.

Jack Lebewohl and his family have done plenty of things right. For more than 50 years, their Second Avenue Deli has been a temple to Jewish-American cooking.

How does one eat one of their pastrami sandwiches?

"How do I eat it? Fatty," said Lebewohl. "Anyone who takes a lean pastrami sandwich, they think it's healthier, but it's not better, it doesn't taste as good!

"And if you're going to do it, do it right," he said.

Check Out Second Avenue Deli's Recipes for Chicken Soup and Matzo Balls!

"Did do you ever think about making it smaller?" asked Harry Smith.

"People [who] come to our restaurant expect it to be big," he replied. "I guess when you go to Jewish restaurants, you get big portions. At the WASP-y places, you get small portions!" he laughed.

This New York City landmark - so famous the name went unchanged even after a move from 2nd Avenue to 33rd Street - has weathered decades of culinary trends, including the dreaded fear-of-fat . . .

"I'll tell you, years ago I put a new category on the menu, I called it the 'healthy alternative,'" said Lebewohl. "What I found out was, by calling it healthy, I sold less of it than when I used to sell it when it was on the regular menu.

"People go out to restaurants, they wanna eat. They want to enjoy their food, they wanna eat tasty food," he said. "They're not looking for healthy."

The customers keep coming back because it tastes like home. The food is good for the heart (just don't tell your cardiologist).

Or witness the lunch-time crush at Katz's, the oldest Jewish deli in the world - hand-carving cured meats since 1888.

But Katz's and its uptown competitor, the Carnegie Deli, are an endangered species.

Seventy years ago, New York City boasted more than a thousand Jewish delis.

Today, only a handful survive.

"This food was the food of impoverished immigrants," said David Sax. "And the giant sandwich - 12 ounces of salted, cured, fatty meat for a reasonable price - I mean, to these people who had known starvation in the shtetl, this was the American dream embodied in - "

"In a sandwich," said Smith.

"8,000 calories!"

Deli-devotee David Sax has penned a ode to shmaltz and pastrami - a love letter to the kind of place that in most Jewish neighborhoods is little more than a memory.

"The difference with Jews in America and other ethnic groups is that there is no more Jewish Eastern European population that's feeding immigrants. The Holocaust ended that. So it's an immigrant food, but it doesn't have an immigrant population to support it.

"So, it's a cultural battle against history," Sax said. "And sort of time eroding it away."

Which is why the success of this tiny restaurant is so surprising - and offers so much hope to those who want the deli to endure.

Montreal-native Noah Bernamoff and his wife Rachel are the proprietors of Brooklyn's Mile End. They've won raves for their house-smoked meats and foodie-friendly takes on old-time deli dishes.

He showed up a radish salad: "It's a mix of white and watermelon radish, and we have made gribenes, which is rendered and fried chicken skin, as well as a schmaltz vinaigrette. Schmaltz is chicken fat. So it's just kind of a simple radish salad, but kind of elevated in the Jewish sense, which, you know, schmaltz and gribenes are both completely at home in any deli."

"When you come right down to it, what we're talking about here is Jewish soul food?" asked Smith.

"I think most Jewish food is soul food," Bernamoff said. "I mean, you look at most Jewish recipes, it's like, cut everything up, put it into a big pot, and cook it for three hours. That's not too complicated. It's really delicious. And I think that, you know, much of what we eat as Jews is soul food."

It may be asking a lot of this little deli to carry-on such a weighty tradition, much less move it forward. But the connection to the past is unmistakable. The food, the heart, the love . . . were it ever thus.

For more info:
"Save the Deli" by David Sax

New York Landmarks
For more information on the delis featured in our story visit:
Mile End, 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn
2nd Ave Deli, 162 East 33rd Street, Manhattan
Katz's Deli, 205 East Houston Street, Manhattan
Carnegie Deli, 854 7th Avenue, Manhattan

Beyond New York City:
You can find great Jewish delicatessens in plenty of places beyond the Big Apple. Here are just a few recommended by "Save the Deli" author David Sax:
Kenny and Ziggy's, 2327 Post Oak Boulevard, Houston
Langer's, 704 S. Alvarado St., Los Angeles
Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen, 1141 South Jefferson Street, Chicago
Jimmy & Drew's 28th Street Deli, 2855 28th Street, Boulder, Colo.
Lou's, 8220 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit, Mich.
Saul's Restaurant and Deli, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Calif.
Protzel's, 7608 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, Mo.
Kosher Cajun, 3519 Severn Ave, Metarie, La.
Corky & Lenny's, 27091 Chagrin Boulevard, Cleveland, Ohio
Ben's Kosher Deli, 9942 Clint Moore Road, Boca Raton, Fla.